Regional theater and Brecht
REGIONAL THEATER AND BRECHT:
The Washington Experience
Thirty-three years after his death, we're still asking how
relevant and acceptable the work of Bertolt Brecht is in the
world as well as in North America. On a more limited canvas, I
propose to explore how well and to what extent he is received in
the regional theaters of the Puget Sound arrea of western
Washington, including larger commercial theaters therein, but NOT
academic and amateur stages. Initially I had planned to
personally interview artistic directors and to draw them out as
to their attitudes toward producing Brecht. Time, both theirs
and mine, however, militated against this. The compromise
solution was to send out questionnaires to regional and
commercial theaters with access to large, paying audiences.
These questionnaires were limited to productions during the
1980s. Naturally, the succes of this method of inquiry depended
upon the patience and goodwill of busy directors.
In addition to comments from directors of commercial
theaters in the region, the views of local theater critics and
reviewers were included. Here is Joe Adcock's review of a Brecht
production: "The staging is ingenious, the despair ridiculous and
three and one-half hours is a long time."(1) This, then, is the
way one local theater critic received the highly publicized
Intiman production of Brecht's _In the Jungle of the Cities_,
performed in August of 1983. This is admittedly not one of
Brecht's most frequently produced plays. As a matter of fact, it
closed six performances after its premiere at the
_Residenztheater_ in Munich in 1921.
Although we can't consider this play a bellwether of
Brecht's popularity and appeal in the Pacific Northwest, three
elements emerge from the reviewer's critique that surfaced in
other discussions of Brecht's reception in this region. The
three elements: the length of Brecht's plays; Brecht's
"ideological overkill"; and the need to provide ingenious,
innovative stagings of his plays, which to some directors means
abandoning Brecht's dramaturgical method and style altogether.
The directors' responses to the questionnaire were, for the
most part, candid and frank and helpful in rounding out the image
of Brecht in western Washington State and most probably in the
rest of the region as well. The directors were asked how often
they performed Brecht. The Empty Space Theater had never
performed a play by Brecht. For ACT (A Contemporary Theater),
the last Brecht play was a production of _Chalk Circle_ in 1970.
The Group Theater hasn't performed Brecht for over a decade. The
Seattle Rep Did _The Wedding_ in 1984 and _The Chalk Circle_ in
the fall of 1987. Intiman produced _The Jungle of the Cities_,
mentioned above with a German director and an Austrian set
designer as well as with financial assistance from the Federal
Republic of Germany. The Bathhouse Theater, a small, and for a
while struggling theatrical enterprise, has performed three plays
of Brecht since 1982, plus one original Brecht cabaret,
"Entertaining Brecht." The three plays were _The Threepenny
Opera_, 1982, _The Good Person of Szechwan_, with guest director
Mel Shapiro, in 1985 and _Puntila_, in 1986.
When asked what risks were involved in producing a Brecht
play, the directors responded with "commercial risks," and
"philosophic risks," or the fact that Brecht "is not a household
name for American audiences." The Bathhouse's Arne Zaslove
commented that "...many people do feel that Brecht is 'unpleasant
or obscure.'" Despite the apparent risks, Zaslove notes: "Oddly
though, when we recently asked audiences to vote for a revival of
their favorite Bathhouse production, _Threepenny_ came in a
strong second." Under risks, another concern was expressed by
Burke Walker, of the Empty Space Theater, "...we find ourselves
generally lacking the resources to tackle most of Brecht's
plays." And: "The Empty Space's subscribers probably consider
Brecht eminent but not a playwright they expect or wish to see at
the Empty Space Theater."
The next obvious question was "what could be done to make
subscribers wish to see Brecht performed?" Zaslove indicated
that, "Some of the plays do become more accessible when cut for
length; removing ideology strikes me as both a peculiar idea and
an impossible operation. Paying more attention to Brecht's own
staging ideas is probably the most effective way to appeal to the
audience." Mel Shapiro, guest director for the Bathhouse
production of _Good Person_ in November, 1985, responds in
another way: "If you get rid of all the political polemics, the
garbage that academics have handed us about Brecht, all the stuff
about the Berliner ensemble and the religion about Brecht and how
his plays should be done--all of which is rubbish--you get to the
fact that Brecht was a great storyteller. That's what makes him
such a tremendous playwright, along with his craftsmanship--he
really knew how to write a scene...He mixes styles
liberally....He may have a serious scene followed by a kind of
Marx Brothers burlesque followed by a social protest song. I
love that kind of mixture, but some people can't take it."(2)
Greg Falls of ACT does not think that directors should adhere
strictly to Brecht's methods and dramaturgical principles: "A
director who does is a poor director."
Empty Space's Burke Walker points to "innovative
productions" as a means to make Brecht more appealing to local
audiences. For him generally, "Audiences in the theater these
days are way ahead of most productions, thanks to the sensory
standards set by the electronic media. Without aesthetic impact,
political intention in the theater amounts to less than a hill of
beans." It appears that what sells to Washington audiences is a
good story, aesthetically presented. This may or may not be
possible with Brecht's own methods and principles. Or can it be
true, as Martin Esslin claimed in Toronto in 1986, that most
American directors do not understand Brecht's method?
To what extent does Brecht's Marxism actually hurt his
appeal to the general theater goer? This question had to be
asked in the state that had a strong Wobbly (IWW) respresentation
in the first quarter of this century. Walker asserts that,
"Powerful stories with attached labels demanding political
interpretations undoubtedly turn off the general theater goes."
But Zaslove states that, "Brecht's Marxism is integral to his
work." Again Walker: "Without some knowledge of Marxist theory,
audiences miss the deeper resonances." It would seem that if
Brecht's stories are well told his message is conveyed and the
audience may or may not be fully aware of its label.
Brecht's reception in the Puget Sound area has been
accompanied by a few discouraging words in the 1980s by some
professional theater critics. Joe Adcock writer in his September
12, 1986, review of the Bathhouse production of _Puntila_: "...on
balance, I'm glad to have seen this irritating comic parable by
the master of artistic irritation, Bertolt Brecht. But three
hours is a long time to spend with an hour's worth of inspiration
and two hours' worth of elaboration."(3) And further: "Director
Arne Zaslove does as much for Brecht as anyone could ask. He
presents the parable of inequality forcefully, as forcefully as
the monotonous repetitious material allows."($) Wayne Johnson
writes on the eighth of November, 1985 in a review of the
Bathhouse production of _Good Person_: "It's not the ideas in
_The Good Person of Setzuan_ that have kept the play alive and
kicking for 45 years. Who needs to go to the theater to learn
that 'good deeds bring ruin, and evil deeds bring prosperity'?
It's the theatrical energy behind the expression of the ideas
that makes the play come alive and become important; even in this
year of our Reagan--maybe especially now."(5)
It is just this "theatrical energy" that emerges as the
focal point of critical and directorial consensus concerning
Brecht here in the Pacific Northwest in this decade. For Brecht
to survive and to thrive in this region, and I suspect this is
probably valid for most regions, directors will have to accept
the challenge to capitalize on Brecht the storyteller in
crowdpleasing and critic-pleasing, innovative and somewhat
shortened productions (heresy!) and simply let the ideological
chips land where they may. If the story is compellingly told,
the message won't fall on completely deaf ears and it will
continue to be told in the world, in North America and in the
Puget Sound region of the United States.
1. _Seattle Post-Intelligencer_, Sept.7, 1983.
2. Mel Shapiro. Interviewed by Wayne Johnson, _Seattle Times_,
November 4, 1985.
3. Joe Adcock, _Seattle Post Intelligencer_, Sept. 12, 1986.
5. Wayne Johnson, _Seattle Times_, Nov. 8, 1985.
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